So we have guests visiting from Seattle for the week, which means that we've been taking them out to dinner at some of our favorite places. What follows is a brief review of each. It was my second time eating at Dukem and Pasta Mia and one of a handful at Mixtec and Ben's.
Dukem on U Street (MUCH better than the overrated Meskerem on 18th)
-It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday; the place was fairly packed considering it was between 2-3 in the afternoon. A woman was circulating with a tray of bread cubes, followed by a tray of strong Ethiopian coffee (espresso-style). Incense floated in the air. We ordered our perennial favorite, kitfo (raw freshly ground beef mixed with spiced melted butter and served with fresh cheese), along with a lamb wot and a veggie sampler (misser wot, chickpea fritters in a thick, dark, slightly bitter sauce reminiscent of mole, if you can forgive me for mixing cuisine metaphors; a milder lentil wot and the tomato-onion-green pepper salad). The lamb wot, a new dish for us, had a well-blended sauce with just enough spice that was a pleasant surprise.
For Ethiopian food we also like to go to Roha (on U across from Ben's) and I think I like their lamb tibs better than Dukem's lamb wot. Dukem also serves Ethiopian breakfast; I recommend the Foul (hot stewed beans served with clarified butter (kibbeh), sour cream, chopped tomato, chopped jalepenos, and crusty French-like bread on the side).
Mixtec on Columbia
-I had an appetizer of broiled mussels with hot peppers and garlic. The mussels were pretty good but didn't taste the freshest; not sure if I'd order them again. I think ordering their tacos is still the best way to go here. We shared a pitcher of their sangria, per usual: it tastes of wine, unlike some sangrias, and comes with chunks of diced apple and orange floating in it. There's just enough cinnamon mixed in to remind you of Christmas punch.
Pasta Mia (next to Mixtec)
-So part of the experience of going to Pasta Mia this time (and, every time going to Pasta Mia ends up being an "experience" of some sort) was the torrential summer rain storm that I got caught in without an umbrella on the way there. I was wringing out my skirt under the bus shelter. It necessitated running back home to change before heading out to the restaurant again. We still had to wait half an hour, like we expected, even though it was still raining. I had forgotten how good their caesar salad is--and it's a great deal since one plate for $6 serves four people. You have to love garlic, though! This time we also ordered a plate of antipasti to share, complete with two kinds of olives (the large bright green ones were the best) and prosciutto, what looked like coppicola (sp), and salami. The bread was good as always, the house wine very fruity but good with the pasta. I had a penne dish with pancetta and spicy tomato sauce; M's ravioli were surprisingly good and huge--the pasta a little overcooked, but with a delicate ricotta filling. I often find the cheese filling in restaurant ravioli to be a little too heavy. Our guests had spinach fettucini with porcini mushrooms in a white sauce (another delicate dish) and fusili with spicy sausage, respectively. The fusili was my least favorite. Of course, the penne was delicious warmed up for lunch the next day. That's one of the best things about Pasta Mia. I've seen numerous mixed reviews about this place, but after going here for the second time, I've decided that in order to enjoy it you have to 1) be assertive 2) be ready to order when you sit down and 3) be patient. Allow time for your meal, expect to wait and not completely understand their seating method, and definitely order the caesar salad and the house wine. One other comment about this place: Lovers of long pasta should be aware that the majority of menu items are short pastas (fusili, farfalle, penne) or stuffed/other (ravioli, tortellini, gnocchi) and they do not allow subs. Also, prior experience has told us not to order the meat sauce; it was swimming in oil.
Ben's Chili Bowl
-Ben's is a perennial favorite. This last time we went reminded us of not only how good the food is, but how stellar the service is (and in D.C. that says a lot). This time we ordered chili half-smokes and an order of chili cheese fries. Since it was pretty busy and loud when we went, the man taking our orders reverted to using hand signals which I couldn't interpret properly in the end. So, I ended up with a chili cheese dog, which I had mistakenly indicated in response to one of his gestures. I didn't really want to complain, but apparently my facial expression said it all, because after we'd taken our food out to our table he came over, cleared up the misunderstanding, and brought me a new half smoke. The food was great as always. We've never ordered anything but the half-smoke, though our friends ordered the chili cheeseburgers and seemed satisfied. I like to order my dog with mustard, diced onion and chili. If you like kielbasa, you'd love Ben's half-smoke in natural casing. The chili is all-meat, finely ground, and not too spicy. However, we decided after this visit (and our friends agreed) that the cheese detracted from the chili on the fries. Next time I would just order the fries with chili; the fries themselves are good (frozen, not from fresh-cut potatoes like they have at Dick's in Seattle) but nothing special. If you're familiar with Jane and Michael Stern, they're also big fans; see their review, and those of others, on Roadfood.com.
I know all these restaurants have been reviewed elsewhere on the web; if there is anyone out there who has something to add, please do.